On Tuesday, I arrived at Ramjas College on Delhi University’s North Campus at 11 am to speak at a seminar on “Cultures of Protest” organised by undergraduates of the English department. I was on a morning panel titled “Mapping Subaltern Resistance”, with a senior academic and a young journalist. We started at noon.
As I spoke about a confluence of environmental, arts and social justice movements I’ve been following in Chennai, the electricity started to come and go; shouts of “Bharat Mata ki Jai!” and “Vande Mataram!” could be heard. I paused briefly, made a joke about nationalist slogans, and continued without a microphone. The disturbances increased. When the next panelist stepped up, deafeningly loud Bollywood music began to play outside. Our voices were being drowned out.
Somehow we completed our session. Before everyone could disperse for lunch, the department chair came on stage to announce regretfully that the college administration had been pressured by a mob of Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad members and police officials who claimed to be helpless in the face of palpable tension on campus, to withdraw the invitation from Umar Khalid, a Jawaharlal Nehru University graduate student and political activist, slated to speak at a post-lunch session titled “Unveiling the State: Regions in Conflict”. We were told that Khalid had left JNU campus and was en route to Delhi University, when he had to be asked to turn back to ensure the safety of everyone present.
The faculty advisors who had helped student organisers plan the schedule were clearly upset and angry. A couple of them addressed the gathering briefly, urging all of us – speakers, students and teachers – to strongly but peacefully protest this forcible withdrawal of Khalid’s invitation. We marched for a few minutes within the college, students shouting slogans of “Azadi” like the ones heard in JNU last spring. I suggested to colleagues that perhaps Khalid could join by Skype.
Displays of physical aggression
As we moved back towards the canteen area, where lunch was to be served and proceedings to resume, albeit sans Khalid, the small space was flooded with ABVP members again, shoving their way in and projecting physical aggression, especially towards women and faculty. The police started to arrive in numbers. There were construction materials and large cooking fires in a very cramped area, both of which seemed unsafe in the circumstances.
I found myself pushed from one side to the other as I tried to take pictures, find familiar faces and assess the escalating situation. Young men stood ominously on the roof of the building, above the conference hall. They began throwing down branches and dangling steel buckets in a threatening way above the dense crowd gathered below. A student got hurt.
At this point a face-off began between ABVP and college students. The police did little to defuse the violence in the air. An onrush of people surging helter-skelter in my direction sent me running back into the building. I decided to leave while I could. I discovered the parking lot to be full of police officers and official cherry-top cars; one vehicle had someone who appeared to be a Bharatiya Janata Party leader in the backseat, with a large saffron tilak on his forehead, talking on his cell phone. I requested him to let me take my car out. He nodded politely. As I drove away I saw more police heading towards the college gates.
Subsequent developments on February 21-22 and continuing on Thursday, have been widely reported in the media. Those protesting the closure of the seminar, the aggression of the ABVP, the role of police and the restrictions on specific invitees, have been intimidated, attacked and injured. Journalists were roughed up and had their equipment broken. Many ended up in hospital. There were rumours that Section 144 had been imposed on the North Campus on the night of February 22 and that students received threatening messages asking them to stay in their hostel rooms.
The ABVP has repeatedly insisted that it opposes the participation of student activists Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid in particular. There’s no doubt why a right-wing student union and a Hindu majoritarian administration targets these individuals: both have Muslim names, both belong to JNU and both are politically on the left. Moreover, they have over the past year spoken out on a range of issues from Kashmir to Dalit and tribal rights, all of which are considered off-limits by the BJP regime.
It doesn’t help that these young scholar-activists articulate themselves with poise and confidence in Hindi and English, are academically brilliant, and have held their own repeatedly against bellicose interlocutors on TV and in public gatherings. Khalid went to jail in 2016 despite being innocent of any crime. Rashid (originally from Kashmir) has been relentlessly trolled and bullied, including most recently on the Aligarh Muslim University campus.
What’s at stake
Neither one has backed down in the least, not at Ramjas College now nor at any time since Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest on the JNU campus last year. Before our eyes both have grown from regular graduate students into promising organisers and leaders, as well as potentially influential teachers and intellectuals of the future.
We should also worry that an entire seminar, featuring speakers who are scholars, journalists, artists, activists and educators, covering a whole range of issues from gender and sexuality to history and politics, to arts and culture, to media and conflict, has been brazenly disrupted. That a college campus was overrun by police – who then proceeded to openly side with the aggressors and failed to ensure the security of others. That a routine student-run event posing no danger to anyone was forcibly stopped.
What does the Hindu Right fear the most? Is it who talks? Or is it what is talked about? Or is it the fact that citizens of this free country and world’s largest democracy expect to be able to talk at all? Are we supposed to drop that fundamental assumption regarding our freedom of expression, and just shut up? If speaking makes us anti-national, what kind of nation does that make India?
Ananya Vajpeyi is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.